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Off to Serendip, with a bottle of Kuntalin: Speculative fiction in India

All that muchness: In spec-fic, literature is not forced to be a mirror to the world.   | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ Istock

Imagine this: You’re a Bengali gent of a scientific mindset, middle-aged, tired and recovering from a life-threatening fever. You were a lion once, with a lion’s vigour and a lion’s mane, but now you’re just a balding old cat. Worse, your eight-year-old daughter, the apple of your eye, makes fun of your bald “spot”, comparing it to the Pacific Ocean. Before you set off on a ship to recuperate in Ceylon, your daughter informs you she’s packed a bottle of Kuntalin hair oil.

The first couple of days are fine. But on the third day, the ship runs into a massive storm, a typhoon. It is headed for land. Death is imminent. Naturally, you recall the face of your beloved daughter. You remember her words, the bottle of hair oil. Oil? Oil! You’d recently read a scientific paper on oil and turbulence. A layer of oil, it seems, has the ability to calm turbulent water. What do you have to lose? You rush to your cabin, seize the bottle of Kuntalin hair oil, rush back on deck, uncap the bottle, and — well, you can imagine what happens next.

Imagine Bose

The original version of this story, Niruddesher Kahini, was written in 1896 by Jagadish Chandra Bose. For Bose, then just an obscure 36-year-old Professor of Physics at Presidency College in Calcutta, the year would prove to be a watershed. He had begun his research into electromagnetics in 1894. In the face of racial prejudice, bureaucratic harassment, lack of financial support, heavy teaching loads, recurrent malarial fever, and near scientific isolation, the physicist had converted an abandoned bathroom at Presidency College into a lab, and with the help of an illiterate tinsmith, Putiram Das, designed and built delicate electronic instruments of exquisite sensitivity.

In two years, he had replicated Hertz’s experiments, found a way to generate and control microwaves, conclusively demonstrated that electromagnetic waves had all the properties of light waves, and published two papers in the research journals of Asiatic Society and Royal Society. On September 21, 1896, at the British Association of Science in Liverpool, he would stand before some 3,000 white guys, many of them pre-eminent authorities in their fields, and reveal revolutionary new results that would establish him at the forefront of experimental electromagnetics research.

Jagadish Chandra Bose, who stood at the threshold of many worlds, was the first modern research physicist from the subcontinent. Like us, his contemporaries would have been able to easily imagine his story, but unlike us, they were scarcely able

to imagine that they’d one day see, as the London Spectator reluctantly marvelled, “a Bengalee of the purest descent lecturing in London to an audience of European savants upon one of the most recondite branches of modern physical science.” What was the point of the imagination if the unimaginable wasn’t also the impossible?


When we read, we imagine stuff. The imagination might seem like a movie projector playing scenes in our head. This sort of imagining is an extension of our senses. Let’s call this ‘remote-sensing’. But the imagination also has a subtler and far more important job. It keeps us from identifying facts with truth. A fact exists, or so it seems, independent of us. The truth however has human fingerprints all over it. It is a fact that there never was a Don Quixote. But it is still true that Don Quixote can inspire us. All facts are true, but all truths need not be facts. This function of the imagination enables us to be more than automata.

Anyone who has recently wandered into an Indian bookstore must have surely noticed that the aisles are clogged with imaginary worlds that never existed, can never exist, may never exist, and to be mean but honest, probably should never exist. Much of this new literature is terrible, much of it is good, much of it is derivative, much of it is innovative, much of it is this, and much of it is not this, but what is undeniable about all this ‘muchness’ is that the imagination has made a comeback.

Comeback? When did the imagination retreat? Hasn’t it always been a part and parcel of fiction? Well, no. Writers need several talents to come up with a good story. Keen powers of observation, dogged curiosity, patience, an ear for conversation, a sense of empathy, command over language, a grasp of what’s important in a situation, and so on. But imagination is not one of these talents. Sure, it can’t hurt to have a good imagination, but it is not necessary. It can even be a liability. In fact, what we call modern literature originated in the efforts of the Realists to move away from the fantastic, and in a more extreme form, that of the Naturalist school to ruthlessly suppress the role of imagination in fiction.

Writers like Gustav Flaubert and Émile Zola in France, Gerhart Hauptmann in Germany, Giovanni Verga in Italy, and Leonid Andreyev in Russia took the writings of the physiologist Claude Bernard — known for his passionate support of vivisection — as their model for how literature should describe the world. They called for writers to report, not invent. They called for writers to “slice” life into a moment, a day, an expression, a few ordinary lives, and with a minimum of rhetorical flourish reveal the intricate anatomy of human experience. Later writers loosened some of naturalism’s constraints but the fundamental distrust of the imagination was maintained. Even now, it isn’t uncommon for literary magazines to list the kind of stories their editors don’t wish to imagine.

All in the family

Speculative fiction, or ‘literature of the imagination,’ takes a very different view. It is a family of genres with a rather generous admissions policy. Anything with dragons is a lifetime member of this group. Ditto for vampires, ghosts and zombies. The Fairytale and Fable are respected elders, Science fiction is the crazy uncle, and Fantasy is the unmarried sister with a passion for unicorns. There’s an eternal child, Nonsense verse, who still hasn’t learned to speak, thank god. The family also includes stylish characters like Nouveau Roman, Magic Realism, Fabulist fiction, Irrealist fiction, and Sir Theatre of the Absurd, who for some reason, refuses to answer to “Absurdist Theatre”. Spec-fic isn’t against realism; it is anti-naturalist. Literature is not forced to be a mirror of the world.

J.C. Bose’s Niruddesher Kahini is usually presented as one of the earliest examples of science fiction from the subcontinent. This is an accurate reading. It anticipated the Butterfly Effect (here the “butterfly” is a bottle of hair oil) 56 years before Ray Bradbury’s A Sound Of Thunder. It mixed science with speculation. Even so, Bose most likely wouldn’t have seen his story as science fiction; the concept itself barely existed in the 1890s. But he would have seen it as an imaginative work. Bose wasn’t afraid to imagine.

For a scientist in the late 1800s, this was a risky attitude. The model of the ideal scientist wasn’t the genius running around naked shrieking Eureka!, but rather, the dapper accountant with a passion for facts and an aversion for fancy. This is why John Tyndall’s 1870 talk on “On the Scientific Use of the Imagination” to the British Association for the Advancement of Science triggered severe criticism in the English press.

Leaping ahead

Bose too was criticised in the second-half of his career for his “emotional style” and speculative claims about plant life. The respected biologist Dr. Gerta von Ubisch, Bose’s contemporary, evaluating his work on plant response in Der Biologe, emphasised that: “It must be our duty to stop the mixing of exact science research with the nice, wonderful fantasies. We want to have fairy tale books and science books; but we don’t want that the popular literature becomes a hybrid between the two…”

This is not to say there’s an ongoing civil war in science and literature. Dr. Ubisch wasn’t incorrect to call for caution. But Bose’s imaginative leap wasn’t off the mark. Today, thanks to the work of biologists like Suzanne Simard, we know plants and trees have communication networks and powerful means for shaping their environments. Taking a cue from Bose’s own motivating philosophy of life and work, the aim here is to unite, not divide. Without the imagination, both science and fiction — indeed, any field of endeavour — is incomplete. The literature of the imagination complements the literature of the mirror.

Imagine this: A Bengali gent of a scientific mindset, almost middle-aged, tired and periodically wracked by malarial fever. He’s about to set off on an intellectual journey. There are no reliable maps, and it is likely there will be storms along the way. He can’t be sure where he’ll end up. But wait. He is not travelling alone. He has a companion: Imagination. So we don’t need to imagine how this story ends. We know this man and we know he found safe harbour in Serendip.

The writer’s novel, Half of What I Say, was shortlisted for the 2016 Hindu Prize.

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Printable version | Sep 14, 2021 9:43:04 AM |

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